Practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by the National Union of Teachers (Sch Sci 27)

1.  The National Union of Teachers (NUT) is the largest teachers union representing teachers and head teachers at all key stages across England and Wales. To inform its submission the NUT invited comments to the questions posed by the Select Committee from science teachers and health and safety representatives.

How important are practical experiments and field trips in science education?

2.  Practical work is crucial to the teaching of science. Science is after all a practical discipline and proceeds by practical tests of hypotheses. Science teachers consulted by the NUT feel that there is not as much practical work being undertaken in schools as they would like and there are a number of reasons for this. New teachers will encounter practical science work within schools' schemes of work and due to time pressures and needs, may not be tempted to look outside these schemes. The overall result is that many new teachers, in particular, may not feel confident in planning, teaching and following up practical and field based science lessons. The end result is a narrowing of the scope of practical work and class demonstrations. Teacher training should allow trainees time to experiment with a wide range of practical work, and science teachers should have a range of high quality opportunities as part of their continuing professional development to reinforce their ability to teach science through investigative, and enquiry based, science practical lessons and work in the field.

3.  In addition to being invaluable to science teaching and learning, field trips have clear cross-curricular benefits particularly in relation to personal, social and health education (PSHE).

Are practical experiments in science lessons and science field trips in decline? If they are, what are the reasons for the decline?

4.  The overloaded and over-prescribed nature of the National Curriculum, especially in primary schools, means that the scope for the open-ended practical is much reduced. Scientists frequently spend a long time on practical tests only to come to the conclusion that the theory was wrong in the first place, but they learn a lot on the way. New teachers will have studied at university using modern techniques and equipment which will not be available or relevant in school. This means that their previous experience, university education and training all contribute to restricting the practical work that new teachers feel confident in undertaking in school. Learning objectives, level statements and pressure to push the student to achieve centrally imposed targets based on narrow definitions of pupil attainment all contribute to narrowing the scope of practical work. This leads teachers to do one experiment that shows the general trend and to fill in the detail as a straightforward theory lesson. Such practice lends itself to the prescribed method of teaching in that the three stages are easily identifiable and can be easily observed by Ofsted or school management.

5.  Although a new teacher may be a highly qualified Biologist, for example, he/she may not have the skills and background to teach chemistry or physics with the necessary enthusiasm and expertise. This again highlights a shortfall in teacher training and courses are needed in the basic skills of setting up equipment, demonstrating, researching and carrying out practical work outside the narrow confines of the scheme of work.

6.  In summary, teacher training is inadequate and rushed. The constricted National Curriculum, pressure to achieve targets and to move onto the next, leaving little time to consider issues around a topic and the insistence on a narrow one size fits all, rigid and boring method of teaching, have all conspired together to narrow the range of, and opportunity for, good class practical work. Teachers also need access to high quality professional development opportunities throughout their career in order to develop their expertise of lessons based on practical science and field work. Such professional development opportunities should be identified by teachers themselves rather than imposed upon them.

7.  Field trips are a very useful adjunct to science teaching adding breadth, depth and relevance to what is taught in science lessons. However, to undertake a field trip involves a large amount of paperwork in terms of risk assessment plus a great deal of work for the organising staff. These staff will already be under pressure in terms of time and to achieve targets.

8.  Inevitably a well organised field trip will take a number of staff out of school for at least a day. This has knock on effects in terms of extra workload for staff not going on the trip and possible financial ramifications in terms of payments for supply staff. Again the pressure to achieve national curriculum targets means that if the targets can be achieved without the hassle of a field trip why bother? The fact that education in its widest sense implies an opening of the mind, stimulating thought and enquiry, something encouraged by, for example, a visit to the Science Museum, seems to be ignored by Ministers who seem to see education solely in terms of examinations passed or national curriculum targets achieved. The effect of a good field trip cannot be measured in terms of targets achieved.

9.  In recent years for many schools and pupils, the opportunities to participate in science field trips and other activities outside the classroom are perceived as prohibitively expensive. If insurance premiums continue to rise as a result of the real or perceived fear of litigation, then outdoor education centres will be less likely to be able to subsidise the cost of places and schools will be even more reluctant to participate in activities outside the classroom. The cost effectiveness of school visits is a particular issue for small rural primary and secondary schools who may also be faced with increased transport costs.

10.  As the Select Committee on Education and Skills noted in their 2005 Report "the provision of activity centres and other facilities is closely linked to the way in which outdoor education, and education more generally, is funded." (paragraph 64)[17] Centrally held budgets were increasingly under pressure, even then, as more funding was delegated to schools. The current cuts to local authority budgets are very likely to have a severely detrimental impact on school activity centres and transport provision.

What part do health and safety concerns play in preventing school pupils from performing practical experiments in science lessons and going on field trips? What rules and regulations apply to science experiments and field trips and how are they being interpreted?

11.  Health and safety considerations are important where practical work is concerned. An experienced teacher will run practical work because he/she has done so before many times and knows what the risks are. According to one Primary Head teacher children too can benefit from "an emphasis on health and safety responsibilities of all concerned." These "enhance the self sufficiency and PSHE experiences for the children and are a key factor in taking them on this kind of experience."

12.  Health and safety regulations, insofar as their application to school practical work is concerned, are not always well understood by teachers, or local authority safety advisers whose background may be industrial.

13.  It is felt that there is a distinct lack of guidance from the Health and Safety Executive who do not appreciate the circumstances in which science teachers work and guidance produced by CLEAPSS[18] often tends to encourage the production of unnecessarily complex risk assessments. As a result the risk assessments produced range from the ridiculously complex to none at all. Some science departments call for risk assessments that would frighten new teachers away from even trying new practical work while other science departments rely on risk assessments produced by commercial scheme authors that are largely irrelevant to the situation in which teachers may find themselves. Such "Out of the Classroom" guidance is viewed by teachers as taking priority over any decision to carry out experiments or run a field trip. In addition teachers are also put off by local authorities insisting on adherence to their policies and protocols to the letter.

Do examination boards adequately recognise practical experiments and trips?

14.  In response to this question science teachers consulted by the NUT responded "No and they never have done". There is a feeling that exam boards "are only interested in getting the content of their course assessed from a theoretical point of view that can be validated by either computer marking or by moderated exam scripts".

15.  It is important to recognise, however, that awarding bodies operate within the constraints of a regulatory framework for qualifications, and that the design of that framework can be politically motivated. An example is the variety of changes over the years related to maximum and minimum amounts of a qualification which can or should be assessed through coursework, and the eventual removal of coursework at GCSE entirely in favour of "controlled assessments". It is through flexible assessment methodologies such as coursework that good quality investigative science, based on practical work and work in the field, is facilitated, and by which students are encouraged to become the more independent and inquisitive learners that a science education should particularly lend itself to.

16.  All teachers need to be enabled to acquire and develop their skills as an assessor, including in relation to practical and field based science. It is important to recognise that are aspects of science, as with other subjects, which contribute to a richer and fuller development of knowledge, skills and understanding of science but which may not be easily and readily assessed through the traditional constraints of examination based qualifications.

If the quality or number of practical experiments and field trips is declining, what are the consequences for science education and career choices? For example, what effects are there on the performance and achievement of pupils and students in higher education?

17.  There is a danger that the lack of practical experience will mean that mainly theoretical scientists leave school and who then face increased difficulties in their Higher Education course choices many of which are more practically based than GCSE and A Level courses. Consequently, we are not producing enough technically minded scientists. In the words of one science teacher: "We need more technicians in industry and less Stephen Hawkings. Maybe it is no surprise that the number of students attending HE science courses is declining and the number of those achieving certain grades is falling?". It is noteworthy, however, that some gains have been made recently in enhancing the uptake of separate science subjects at GCSE, and some increases in enrolment of science subjects at A level also.

18.  It is vital that a range of options continue to be made available in order to meet the needs, aptitudes and aspirations of different learners. For some learners, scientific "literacy" to meet the demands of the 21st Century are sufficient. For other learners, it is vital that there are clear progression routes to study at advanced level and in higher education, and/or that scientific education provides a solid foundation to work in specific industries with a strong scientific focus.

19.  In developing such learning routes, however, it is paramount that no young person is prevented in the future for progressing to the next level of scientific education should they wish to do so.

What changes should be made?

20.  We have to decide whether we want to educate our children or simply to push them through pressured, restrictive, sometimes boring, target led experiences. Education involves understanding and interest, not just the ability to regurgitate facts.

21.  Teacher training and professional development for science teachers needs to be re-examined, as does the process of risk assessment. Risk assessments need to be simple and relevant. Schools need simple guidance on how and what to risk assess.

22.  GCSE and A Level exam courses need to be developed in such a way that appropriate time can be devoted to experiments and field trips which enhance and consolidate the learning that takes place. The assessment process should include a significant amount of work related to such experiments/field trips that can be marked and moderated by those who actually teach the course (and for which they are appropriately recompensed).

23.  It is vital that children and young people from lower-income families, or those facing increasing financial uncertainty, are not excluded from taking part in practical lessons or field trips because the costs involved are prohibitive. Schools are increasingly more sensitive to the needs of children who live in low income households to ensure that they are not stigmatized nor socially excluded from school activities. It is also hoped that despite squeezed budgets the Government will give serious consideration to how it will structure funding to ensure all children can access practical and outdoor learning experiences.

National Union of Teachers

11 May 2011

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18   CLEAPSS is an advisory service providing support in science and technology for a consortium of local authorities and their schools including establishments for pupils with special needs. Back

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Prepared 14 September 2011